Eyestorm, London, United Kingdom

Untitled by Richard Billingham

Richard Billingham Biography

Birmingham, 1970

Richard Billingham grew up in the Midlands, a region of Britain that saw its fair share of economic deprivation in the 70s and 80s. During his foundation art course in Birmingham, Billingham lived with his father, Ray, and started taking black and white photographs of him. These images were initially used as reference material for painting - a practice he continued during his time at the University of Sunderland, where he later studied. Billingham returned sporadically to his family, now taking color photographs to inform his paintings. He used cheap, out-of-date film and had them developed at a neighborhood chemist, which gave the final prints a gaudy coloration and speckled grain.

In 1996, a book of these family photographs, Ray's a Laugh, was published. Ray is the focus throughout the book. An alcoholic man who needs as much attention as a baby, his presence is constant, even when he is not in the frame. Ray drains the color out of the flat, seeming to live in a fog - gray jumpers, nicotine hair, brown liquid - oblivious of his surroundings. His wife Liz, however, injects color back into the home with her vibrant dresses and collections of porcelain knick-knacks. Liz is (obviously) the mother figure, mothering everyone from Ray to the pets. Meanwhile Jason, Richard's younger brother, passes through - keeping his distance now that he's moved out - which makes him an enigmatic character within the series. Richard is of course ever- present, and yet he is never seen. Sometimes he's a fly-on-the-wall, just following the action; at other times his camera is the center of activities, with family members playing up to it. His is an ambiguous presence: neither objective nor subjective, but as matter-of-fact as only a family member can be.

The Billingham family life unfolds before the lens, running the gamut of emotions from abject dejection to flurries of tenderness. There are idle moments, such as when a jigsaw puzzle is contentedly pieced together, or lying back on the sofa while the TV is on. Tiny kittens are lovingly fed milk through a little dropper, the obvious joy shining through in Liz's expression. There are minor accidents, such as trips and falls, or spillages: peas and carrots scatter across the kitchen floor before the half-bemused, half- opportunist gaze of the family dog. There is also confrontation, from glowering dagger-looks to blazing rows, with explosive situations where fists are threatened or the cat finds itself flung across the room. There is the muffled peace of a drunken haze, and unashamedly sweet moments of tender, familiar affection.

Upon publication, Ray's a Laugh - and the numerous European gallery exhibitions that sprang from it - caused a sensation. The subject matter and frank style of the works ensured an intrigued audience, but what really generated the buzz was the ambiguity of the images; the pictures left viewers to deal with their own reactions to the scenes, without the blatant lecturing normally received from images in the media. Generally in mass-media images, happy families are seen in spotlessly clean, well-ordered households. Not here. Equally, images of families living on the breadline in council estates usually present those people as demoralized victims living in a passive, defeated state of misery. Again, not here. Billingham's family images reveal the shallowness of most popular representations of the family, while emphasizing the complexity of family issues and social life, not to mention the difficult relation between the viewer and the viewed.

While Billingham worked on the family photographs that were to become Ray's a Laugh, he was also making studies of the suburban landscape around him. Returning to the Midlands town of Cradley Heath, he took photographs of places that had remained in his memory since childhood, producing unpopulated images of the mundane suburban spaces that British popular consciousness doesn't want to recognize, even though most of the country is now made up of them.

In 1997 Billingham was included in 'Sensation' at the Royal Academy in London, and in 1998 he was commissioned by the arts organization Artangel, in conjunction with BBC television, to make the 48-minute video work Fishtank. Again claustrophobia was the overriding effect of this work, with relentless close-ups of Ray filling the screen. More recently, Billingham has ventured into the realm of video projections, making such works as Tony Smoking Backwards, Ray in Bed, and the troublingly frenetic Playstation.

Fittingly, it was in the Midlands that Billingham had his first major solo show in a British public gallery; in 2000 the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham exhibited his photographs and video works, and the artist continues to work from his nearby West Midlands base. He is an artist with a definite sense of his own rootedness, and his exploration of his own background reveals a major slice of contemporary society that is rarely, if ever, seen. What's more, Billingham has brought to his subjects a deceptively sophisticated, deadpan eye ('I'm just trying to make pictures,' he says), presenting the viewer with an incredibly compelling body of work.


Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; touring to Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin; Brno House of Arts, Brno; Hasselbad Centre, Goteborg, Nikolaj; Copenhagen Contemporary Art Centre, Copenhagen, 2000

British School at Rome, Rome, Italy, 1999

Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, 1998

Luhring-Augustine, New York, 1997

Regen Projects, Los Angeles, USA, 1997>


'I Am A Camera', Saatchi Gallery, London, 2001

'Give & Take', Serpentine Gallery, London, 2001

'Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection', The Royal Academy, London, 1997

'New Photography 12', Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996

'Who's Looking at the Family?', Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1994


Cork, Richard, 'At Home with Ray and Liz', The Times, 9 June, 2000

Barber, Lynn, 'Candid Camera', The Observer Magazine, 28 May, 2000

Marziani, Gianluca, Flash Art, February-March, 2000

Pagel, David, 'Family Portraits', Los Angeles Times, 14 March, 1997

Lewis, Jim, 'No Place Like Home', Artforum, January, p62-67, 1997

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